This Canadian teenager believed he found a lost Maya city when he was 14 years old. How did he do it?

With a passion for Maya astronomy, access to Google Earth and a pile of transparency sheets, William Gadoury developed a theory that the Maya built their cities based on constellations in the sky

William Gadoury developed a theory that the Maya built their cities based on constellations

Francisco Estrada-Belli and William Gadoury stand in front of a wall of dirt.
In The Teenager and the Lost Maya City, William Gadoury (R) and an expert expedition team including archeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli (L) travel to Mexico to search for a Maya city deep in the Yucatan jungle. (CBC/The Teenager and the Lost Maya City)

When most kids his age were playing video games, 14-year-old William Gadoury was developing a theory that the Maya built their cities based on the constellations they observed in the sky. 

Five years later, that theory took him on the adventure of a lifetime: a journey deep into the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula in search of a lost Maya city. The Teenager and the Lost Maya City, a documentary from The Nature of Things, follows Gadoury (and an expert expedition team) on his quest to prove his theory.

In this interview with documentary digital producer Jessica Young, Gadoury explains how he developed his theory and shares some advice for aspiring archaeologists.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Jessica Young: How did you become interested in Maya culture?

William Gadoury: When I was eight, my grandparents brought me books from Mexico about the Maya civilization. That's when I became interested in Maya history, but I didn't get serious about the research until much later. 

What got you thinking about the locations of Maya cities relative to the stars?

Civilizations were commonly built around rivers or the sea; it was easier for transport and commerce between cities. But the Maya had multiple cities in the mountains or areas that were swamp-like, and I wondered why. 

The Maya were also astronomers — looking at the sky for multiple purposes — so it occurred to me to connect the idea of the sky, the position of the stars and the location of Maya cities. 

That's a pretty big idea. Where did you begin your research? 

I searched for the constellations that the Maya were able to see, focusing on the brightest and most obvious. The constellations that we see here in Quebec, or in Vancouver, are the same because we are on the same latitude, but when you are in the Yucatan Peninsula, it's a bit different because of the way the Earth turns. 

What would you say was the top resource or tool that helped with your research? 

Google Earth, by far. 

In Google Earth, you can observe the sky as well as the Earth. It's easy and user-friendly, so for a 12-year-old kid, it's perfect. And it's free. Hard to compete with that!

I also traced the constellations from Google Earth using transparent sheets, overlaying them on to the position of Maya cities on a paper map. I went through a number of sheets, trying to get it right, but it did the job perfectly. Nothing more complicated than that: a transparent sheet and a Sharpie.

What were the biggest challenges you encountered coming up with your theory and trying to prove it? 

The process is really long. You are always waiting on a response from someone. You cross your fingers and hope it works. 

I started my project when I was 12 and now I'm 21, so I've spent half my life doing it. 

14 year old William Gadoury stands in front of his science fair project, which shows many maps and lots of text.
At 14, William Gadoury presented his findings at a local science fair; then his project won gold at the Canada-Wide Science Fair at McGill University. (CBC/The Teenager and the Lost Maya City)

What would you say to someone wanting to do their own archaeological research? 

You need to like history. If you have no passion for it, do something else! You have to invest time to get good results. 

The other thing you need is determination. There were so many times when I could have given up. If you always keep your goal in mind, I think you can achieve it. 

From a practical perspective, how would someone get started?

Start with the internet. It's crazy how much you can learn without having to spend a penny. 

After that, you can join a Facebook group about your interest. I didn't do that 10 years ago because Facebook groups weren't as popular, but I think nowadays it's a great way to get information and access a network of people with similar interests. 

Any tips for starting an astronomy hobby?

For my part, Google Earth with the sky option was revolutionary. You are not only able to see beautiful images — there is a ton of other information available. A good 15 minutes [spent] on Google Earth will change your life. 

What advice would you give to a parent or caregiver of a kid who loves astronomy or archaeology to help nurture that interest?

Well, I'm not a parent! But I would say: let them try things. 

If you want to buy a telescope, for example, and you're not sure if they'll be passionate about it, let them try it. Buy a used one online. If it doesn't work out, you can sell it online too. 

When you let your kid have fun in their passion, they're not only having fun but they are also learning. 

William Gadoury (L) and archeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli (R) peer into a chultun
William Gadoury (L) and archeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli (R) peer into a chiltune during their expedition to find a lost Maya city. (CBC/The Teenager and the Lost Maya City)

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?

That it will work. 

If you had told me at the end of my first science fair that my hypothesis would one day give me the opportunity to go into the Mexican jungle and see an unseen structure, I would say, "OK, that's impossible." 

So, just have patience.

Watch The Teenager and the Lost Maya City on The Nature of Things.

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